National Elk Refuge
If you have a hankering to see elk—and we mean a lot of elk!—then visit the National Elk Refuge, just a mile from Jackson, Wyo.’s Town Square, in the winter. The refuge was originally established in 1912 to protect one of the world's largest elk herds. It spans 24,700 acres.
Annual Elk Migration
Run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Elk Refuge provides a winter habitat for elk. During the summer, this "Jackson herd" grazes in higher elevations - 30 percent in Grand Teton National Park, 30 percent in Gros Ventre, 25 percent in Yellowstone National Park, and 15 percent in the Teton Wilderness.
The animals typically migrate down from the high country when cold weather sets in from late October through December in search of food. They make their way back to higher elevation in April and May.
Thousands of Elk Migrate Every Year
So just how many elk will you see? The refuge’s objective is 5,000 elk, but their numbers regularly reach 6,000 to 7,000 or even more. The animals can leave and re-enter the refuge on the northern and eastern boundaries, but 8-ft high fences on the southern and western borders exist to protect the elk from traffic in Jackson and along Highway 26, respectively. There are mounded and raised “elk jumps,” or openings in the fence, on the western boundary that allow animals to get into the refuge, without letting them get out.
Sleigh Ride Through Elk Refuge
Above: Winter sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge. Photo by USFWS Lori Iverson
One of the most popular ways to explore the refuge is by taking a sleigh ride. The tours, which run from mid-December to early April, last for roughly an hour and allow participants to see the elk up close safely. Call or visit the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center at 532 North Cache Street, Jackson, WY; 307-733-3316, or Jackson Hole Central Reservations at (888) 838-6606 jacksonholewy.com for more information.
Because elk shed their antlers each year, you may see the antlers scattered along the ground. Don’t take them home. It’s illegal to collect items from the refuge, including antlers, artifacts and fossils.
Related Story: Jackson Hole's Antler Arch Tradition
The Elk Refuge in Summer
If you visit in the summer, you’re not likely to see elk in the refuge. But don’t despair! There are plenty of opportunities to see them up in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, located just a few hours north. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot them. Check in with the Visitor Center for even more info about where see them.